#YEEinterview: Lefteris Arapakis – Enaleia

Travel with us to sunny Greece to chat with Lefteris Arapakis, winner of the 2020 Young Champion of the Earth award by the United Nations Environment Programme. Lefteris is a young entrepreneur who founded Enaleia – a startup focusing on training new fishermen. Pretty cool, right? That´s not all! He also came up with the Mediterranean Clean Up initiative tackling the problem of marine plastic pollution with the help of fishermen. Keep reading to find out more.

Who is Lefteris Arapakis? Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

      I was born and raised next to the sea, in Piraeus, the port of Athens, coming from a family that has been fishermen for 5 generations. I was the first one to join a university, where I studied economics and management. The reason why I selected this subject was that I had been very worried about the economic crisis that emerged in Greece and felt that I had to understand what was going on and try to help. The recession really made living in Greece challenging. In my daily life, I really enjoy doing improv theater, reading books, watching movies and having long walks with my dog. Also, I have 2 wonderful brothers, who are working with my father at the fish market.

How did you come up with the idea of Enaleia? And what are the vision and the mission of this project?

I came up with the idea of Enaleia, during the peak of the economic crisis in Greece, when capital controls were established. At the time, the unemployment had skyrocketed to 29%, and felt that I had to do something about this. One day during a discussion with my father, he told me that fishermen wanted to hire personnel for their boats, but could not find any. This is when I decided to start the first school for fishing in Greece, which we did, and over the last 3 years we have trained more than 110 unemployed people.

The thought of collecting and upcycling plastic from the seas had not crossed my mind at that time. I mean I had heard about marine plastic pollution, but it was not until my first fishing trip that I realised the problem. It was shocking to see the fishermen collecting not only fish through their nets, but also plastic. On our first day we collected many plastic bottles, soda cans, tires and even a fridge, and the result was always the same. They were thrown again in the sea. What the fishermen told me was that “plastic is not our problem”. We searched on the topic, and realised that it is. The studies show that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea, and concluded that there is no use getting more fishers in the profession when in a few years there will be no fish. This is when we decided to do something about this. Over the last 2 years, we have established a wide scale cleanup of the Mediterranean Sea, working with 700 fishermen in 13 ports, in Greece and Italy, and we are collecting more than 4.000 kilograms of plastic from the bottom of the sea every week. Our vision now is to empower every fisher in the world to fish more sustainably and collect plastic from the sea.

What are the impacts of your initiative on the fishing communities you work with?

The main impact, I think, is a change of mindset. For example, a few weeks ago I was talking with one of the captains, a tough guy, one of the local leaders. He told me that through our work, he really understood the value of not polluting the sea. He said “ I was throwing my cigarettes and my coffee back into the sea, never really thought about it, it was kind of a habit. But now, I can clearly see what I was doing. When all the other captains arrived at the port, with all of this plastic, I realised that we were hurting the sea, a lot. And the sea is my home”. Like this captain, we had many similar discussions with fishermen in other communities.

At the same time, we are trying to tell a new story. A story in which the fisherman is now the main character, who is protecting the sea, through fighting against marine plastic pollution.

Finally, through our work, we empower financially these fishing communities. Many jobs have been created in the fishing ports, while we reimburse the fishermen for their participation in the plastic collection, hence increasing the income of 700 small scale fishermen in the Mediterranean.

What happens to the plastic collected through the project Mediterranean Clean up?

That was our biggest question when we started collecting this plastic. Since the day we started the Mediterranean Cleanup, we have collected more than 100.000 kilograms of plastic from the bottom of the sea. We needed to come up with a system, to integrate this plastic into the circular economy, in order not to pollute the sea again. Therefore, in every port we have a “port manager”, who is collecting the plastic from the fishermen, labeling, weighting the plastic and then putting it into a specific bin. When the bin gets full, it goes to a recycling collection center. There, around half of the plastic is recycled with local recycling companies, while the rest is turned into products. We send the PET plastic (mainly the plastic bottles) to Ecoalf Foundation in Madrid, which upcycles it into fashion products, such as t-shirts, jackets and backpacks, while we give the nets to Healthy Seas, an environmental organization, which facilitates the process for the nets to be regenerated into high quality nylon yarn, the basis for new sustainable products like swimming suits and socks!

Besides the valuable contribution of collecting plastic from the polluted sea, it is important to focus on decreasing the amount of plastic that ends up in the sea, in the first place. Which directions, in your opinion, should we follow to reduce the risk that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the seaside?

Collecting plastic from the sea is not a solution to the challenge that we are facing. It is like we are in a boat, the boat has a hole, and we are slowly sinking. What we do is get a bucket and collect the water gathered in the boat. It does buy us some time, but it does not solve the problem. We need to cover the hole and we do that through prevention. For example, in our case we collect and upcycle the used fishing equipment of the participating fishermen, so as not to end up in the sea.  It is interesting to note that many studies show that 20-30% of the total marine plastic pollution is lost fishing equipment, so through prevention we can tackle a big part of the problem, while avoiding the phenomenon of ghost fishing. Ghost fishing is what happens when a net remains in the sea, it keeps on fishing until it breaks down, 6 centuries in the future.

My point is that everyone can clean the seas through prevention. I believe that with sustainable consumption, no use of single plastic products, we can make a huge positive impact, not only to the environment, but also our societies. We tend to forget that environmental work is only for the planets. The planet will be able to survive another mass extinction, evolution will do its work. Humanity will be in danger, if phenomena like marine plastic pollution continue.

Which is the biggest challenge you’ve faced (or you are facing) since founding this social start up?

Our biggest challenge is people’s mindset. When introduced with a new idea, few people think that it will work, and even fewer think that a group of young people will make it work, and this is why many people were reluctant to support us. Even now, when we go to new areas, people don’t really think that what we do works! In a port that we opened a few weeks ago, the port authorities told me that the fishermen will not bring a single kilogram of plastic from the sea. Next night, they brought over 180 kilograms, and everybody was shocked.

Which kind of reactions and feedback has Enaleia received?

Well, almost everything! From disbelief to excitement, we have received many reactions. For me, the most important one is the one that we receive from the fishermen, which is mutual respect when they see that our solution has results. I think that at the end of the day people are surprised that a simple idea, collecting plastic through fishermen, can be so impactful, when it is turned into action.

What did it mean for you to win the 2020 Young Champion of the Earth award by the United Nations Environment Programme?

It is a very big honor, for all of the team. It is a validation that our work is towards the right direction, that we do something that creates a positive impact to the environment. I feel that it is also a big responsibility, to be able to scale our impact and inspire more people to take action.

In your opinion, which role does youth play in raising awareness about sustainability challenges?

I think that most of the younger generations are aware about the sustainability challenges, and I strongly believe that our work is to act, to do something about this. I feel that instead of telling the world what needs to be done, we should show them how it is done and lead by our examples. Through this way, we need to apply pressure to the decision makers in the public and private sector, to make them see the severity of the problem, while also demonstrating solutions to the problem. By starting small, acting local, all together we will have a global impact. My generation is already facing the negative effects of the climate crisis. If we don’t act now, then our tomorrow will be terrifying.

What’s next for you and Enaleia?

Our vision is to empower every fisherman in the world to fish more sustainably and collect plastic from the sea. So we really want to implement our solution, to areas with severe marine plastic pollution and strong fishing communities. We are discussing fishing communities in Asia, Africa and the USA, in order to replicate our work there. Our idea is simple. Every fisher that uses nets, is catching plastic in the nets, plastic that is usually thrown back to the sea. We want to collect this plastic and integrate it into the circular economy, so as to make sure that it will not end up in the sea again. Creating new, sustainable products is also one of our goals, products such as roads! Also, we want to engage every person into making our seas and oceans plastic-free. Everyone can start small and change his/her own behaviours, such as cleaning a beach when going for swimming. We are also thinking of creating products and services, so that people can directly help us clean more plastic from the sea. Wouldn’t it be nice to make a gift to someone that was made from marine plastic that was collected thanks to you?

Which advice would you give to the young people like you who want to be more active in tackling the issues of unsustainable fishing and sea pollution from plastic?

I would advise them to start seeking solutions that can create win-win solutions between humans and the environment. I think that the proposal “fish less” to the fishers is not sustainable. They have a family to sustain. If we suggest them to “fish less” then we need to also suggest some alternatives. From my experience, the most sustainable solutions are the ones where both the environment and the fishing communities “win”. For example, the Mediterranean Cleanup is a project, through which plastic is cleaned with one of the most cost effective and efficient ways from the sea in Europe, and the fishermen have a simultaneous increase in their income. Another solution that we have created for unsustainable fishing, is the project Fish Smarter. With this project, we train small scale fishers in coastal areas in Greece on how to start doing fishing tourism, having tourists on the boat, showing them the traditional Greek fishing techniques, sailing in the wonderful waters of Greece and cooking them the fish they catch. In this way, the fisher does not need to catch 100 kilos of fish per day to sustain his family, but needs only 4-5 kilos, just enough to cook for his guests, while at the same time, has a substantial income raise.

I believe that this kind of win-win solution can be a paradigm shift in the way that we are tackling unsustainable fishing and sea plastic pollution. Also, if the people interested in tackling these challenges feel that they need more advice, they are more than welcome to contact us in our social media!

Thank you to Lefteris for taking part in this interview. If we want to avoid the dramatic projection that more plastic than fish will inhabit our seas by 2050, we need to act now! In YEE, we believe in empowering communities – Enaleia represents one of the main visions we restlessly work for. Building a world where people are critically informed to make the best decisions is a challenging but necessary mission. Initiatives such as Mediterranean Clean Up help the planet and the people, enabling a connection between humankind and nature that is based on respect and interdependence.

Thanks again and good luck for your future. 

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